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Grammy-nominated for tunes with Miley Cyrus and Reneé Rapp, Justin Tranter writes hits by talking

This image shows Grammy Award nominee Justin Tranter on May 25, 2023. The Grammy-nominated songwriter is credited with some of the biggest hits of the past decade. (Jenna Peffley via AP)

NEW YORK (AP) — Sit down and talk to Justin Tranter for just a while and likely a hit song will emerge.

The Grammy-nominated songwriter credited with some of the biggest bangers of the past decade — “Sorry” by Justin Bieber and “Believer” by Imagine Dragons, among them — usually begins a writing session with a friendly chat.

“I just start having a conversation with the artist,” Tranter says. “When they say something that I think is either already the song title or is at least the song topic, then it becomes a secret or not-so-secret interview. And I just keep going in on that topic.”

It is a process that has yielded smashes for such artists as Selena Gomez, Lady Gaga, Dua Lipa, Halsey, Miley Cyrus, Britney Spears, DNCE, Gwen Stefani and Fall Out Boy, triggering 50 million single sales and 50 billion streams.

“I want the artist to leave feeling like this is exactly what I needed — maybe not always wanted to say — what I needed to say today. And that can be really fun,” Tranter says.

Tranter is up for a songwriting Grammy this year for an astonishing range of songs, testament to an ability to talk to everyone: There's Italian heavy metal, a rap banger, crystalline pop, introspective rock and a soaring Broadway number.

The songs are: Miley Cyrus' “River,” Baby Tate's “Jersey,” Måneskin's “Honey (Are U Coming?),” Talk's “A Little Bit Happy,” “I Want More” from the TV series “Grease: Rise of the Pink Ladies” and Reneé Rapp's “Gemini Moon” and “Pretty Girls.”

None seem to have any connection to the others except Tranter, who fronted the glam-punk band Semi Precious Weapons and vowed to make the songwriting business humane after experiencing homophobia and bad record deals.

“The through-line is my passion for helping other people tell their stories. This has nothing to do with me. I’m not singing these songs. These are not about me.”

Tranter, who uses the pronoun they, wanted 2023 to be more than a list of hit songs. They chased different projects to push themselves as a writer and lyricist.

“I am very grateful for my hits. My hits have changed my life. I’ve been able to have my parents retire early. I am so grateful for the hits. But I really wanted to take this year to find projects where I could not be proud of the money the songs are generating, I could be proud of my skill and my craft.”

Tranter, 43, spent just one session with Rapp, Gen Z’s new high priestess, as she charted a course away from TV and musical theater and into confessional pop, making her debut album, “Snow Angel."

“She just came in and was talking about her relationship. And I started writing what she was saying and just put exact quotes into the song and then surround those quotes with poetry,” Tranter says.

Out of that came “Gemini Moon” and “Pretty Girls,” which captured both artists' frustration about straight people flirting with bi-curious flings: “You say that I’m your favorite/With your hand between my thighs/Tell me if you were gonna/That I would be the one you tried.”

“If you just listen to ‘Pretty Girls’ passively, you think, ‘Oh, fun song.’ But actually there’s layers on top of layers,” says Tranter. “It was just a really great year for me as a songwriter to help artists tell stories that I haven’t helped anyone tell before.”

The song from “Grease: Rise of the Pink Ladies,” a spinoff from the original John Travolta and Olivia Newton John movie musical — speaks deeply about Tranter, a self-described theater kid whose love of musicals triggered their music career.

Tranter wrote 30 new songs for the TV series and “I Want More” — sung by Marisa Davila — was the last one written for season one, a power ballad sung by a young woman who has learned that high school waters are treacherous.

“I do not know what it’s like to be a woman in 1950, but I do know what it’s like to be a queer person when I was a teenager in 1994 and '95 and how dare I want more than what people decided I should want,” Tranter says.

Tranter's personable and empathetic approach to making music proved crucial in 2023 for helping Broadway and TV star Billy Porter pivot to dance with the album, “Black Mona Lisa.”

“It’s not easy to find a voice that resonates with huge portions of the public and is authentic at the same time to who you are,” says Porter. “Justin is a master of that.”

Porter even showed his appreciation by putting Tranter in his lyrics: “Rubbing elbows with the superstars like Big Bird,” he sings on “Funk Is On the One,” adding: “Making records out in Hollywood with Tranter.”

To win the songwriter of the year Grammy in the non-classical category, Tranter on Feb. 4, must beat Edgar Barrera, Jessie Jo Dillon, Shane McAnally and Theron Thomas — rivals Tranter calls “literal geniuses."

Whatever happens, Tranter will keep going — one good meeting at a time.

“Young writers, artists and producers will ask me, ‘How do you avoid writer’s block?' And I’m like, ’Well, there’s no such thing if you can have a good conversation,'” Tranter says. “As long as everyone is willing to have an honest conversation, there is a song there.”

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Mark Kennedy is at http://twitter.com/KennedyTwits

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